26 November 2022

Why simple living might mean asking ourselves tough questions: Williams 

Rowan Williams by Brian from Toronto, Canada is marked with CC BY-SA 2.0. Picture: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/?ref=openverse

By Roland Ashby 

20 March 2022

Christians are called to a life of simplicity because they believe that human beings are made in the image of God, former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams said last month. 

He said this meant that as all Christians learnt simplicity in their lives, they were engaged in rediscovering and re-entering their gifted existence as God’s image. 

Dr Williams spoke in February as part of an online series of talks entitled ‘Unified Consciousness: One Mind One Heart’, organised by the World Community for Christian Meditation.  

He said that far from simplicity being “a kind of lack”, it was actually “a kind of fullness”, describing it as a kind of completeness, just as in God, all that God is, is poured out in all that God does. 

He said the more we reoriented and re-established our lives as places where divine life happened, God looked at what He had made and saw God. 

Simplicity, Dr Williams said, was the freedom in this moment simply to turn to God and to mirror God. 

“The task of simplicity is recognising that in this moment it is possible to turn and possible to reflect the gift that’s poured out. In this moment. We don’t have to wait until tomorrow and we don’t have to lament the fact that we did it better yesterday. Simplicity is the belief that a new creation starts now. Here … It is possible. It is given to us; to turn to God and to reflect God,” Dr Williams said. 

“We may not do it with the wholeness of heart we’d like. We may not feel that we’re making a particularly good job of it. Never mind, it’s not about success and achievement, it’s about recognising that something is possible and if this is my desire, to turn to God, to mirror God, then in that moment while that freedom is realised, something happens in me and through me which makes a difference around me. 

“If what I truly want is to turn to God and to mirror the divine life of gift, then one thing that will no longer be true about me is that I’m a slave of obsessions, acquisitive craving impulses; I’m no longer out to excavate and occupy and dig in to a place in the world at other people’s expense. 

“If I’ve turned to God and know that I can mirror God, wanting to be with God … then the last thing that will be on my mind is the question of how can I secure myself, how can I acquire what will keep me safe, how can I plug all the gaps in myself with the goods of this world? 

“The simple person is the person who is not a threat to those around. God isn’t a threat to us because God doesn’t have an agenda, God doesn’t want to use us or exploit us, make something of us, in order to satisfy his own mysterious purposes. God simply wants us to be there, receiving the divine love and radiating it back. And so when we are living in and from that life, there’s going to be something about our lives that is more deeply hospitable, more deeply welcoming.” 

Dr Williams said that as the door to simplicity opened more widely, Christians discovered more and more things they could do without, not because they despised those things, but because they recognised those things did not matter in their journey towards God, and alignment with Him. 

He said simple living necessarily involved asking ourselves tough questions, particularly in our own era, with the massive damage that unbridled consumption had inflicted on the environment. 

Moreover, for Christians simple living was also about learning more and more deeply how their sense of themselves, and their place in the world, didn’t depend on success, control or accumulation of goods. 

“A simple life is a life in which I become more free, and if I become more free then those around me become more free likewise,” Dr Williams said. 

He said simplicity was about learning to see God’s grace as the root of our very being, and learning to speak and act from the place deep within us that resonates with the life and gift of God. 

“Somewhere in each one of us there is that reality that resonates, which gives out the same note of the divine action that creates it … Resonating with the gift and act of God that calls it into being,” he said. 

“Simplicity is really just the liberty and the capacity to say yes to that gift, to let our note sound in unity and harmony with the note of God’s voice as it addresses us.” 

During the question-and-answer session following the talk, Dr Williams was asked by someone describing himself “as a person of relative wealth” how best he could discern how God would want him to reflect His image. Dr Williams replied: “I suppose the question I’d like to start with is, ‘How can my life and my actions be good news for those who don’t have wealth … How does [my wealth] become transforming for others?’” 

A long-time meditator, Dr Williams said he meditated “because I have a sense of my need, my urgent need, to open up … [to that which] supremely is, and is active; and as a Christian, I believe that activity is what is literally embodied, crystallised in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus … I meditate to be fed”.  

He said that his meditation practice depended on responding to what was pouring out towards him from an immeasurable and infinite source. 

For more information about ‘Unified Consciousness: One Mind One Heart’, see: wccm.org/events/unified-consciousness/ 

Roland Ashby is a former editor of The Melbourne Anglican. See his blog, Living Water, at: thelivingwater.com.au. 

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